During a long and thoughtful review of The Rise and Fall of the City of Money by Ben Wray, a respected commentator on politics and economics from a left perspective, he brings up an interesting point: have I fallen into the trap of giving too much weight to individuals and not enough to the political, economic and social tides sweeping across the globe?
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The ruin of the City of Glasgow Bank in 1878 was the biggest collapse in British banking history – until 2008. Its story contains salutary lessons for bankers in any age.
The event was surprisingly full for a cold, wet winter night in Edinburgh. But the Library of Mistakes knows how to sell a good story…
My new book, The Rise & Fall of the City of Money, starts and ends with a financial catastrophe. The Darien disaster of the early eighteenth century drove Scotland into union with England, but spawned the institutions which transformed Edinburgh into a global financial centre. The crash of 2008 wrecked the city’s two largest and oldest banks – and its reputation.
Fact can be as dramatic as fiction, as I discovered during my research for a new book on Edinburgh’s turbulent financial history. The archives revealed a fascinating story of the unscrupulous side of Scotland’s great novelist. And how he would redeem himself.
Then he said something which seized my attention: ‘I withdrew £20 million today from Bank of Scotland to put it in a safe place.
In the autumn of 2008 I attended a black tie business dinner. I forget the occasion or the organisation responsible, they are all very similar and after a while the memories of each merge into one.
‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day. ‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’ (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).
Politicians have often followed the Red Queen’s approach: policy first, evidence later.
Four banks — Lloyds, RBS, Barclays and HSBC — have over 70% of the personal current accounts in the UK between them and over 80% of the current accounts of small businesses. This is not a new situation, it was identified 15 years ago in an official inquiry.
Unlike Lloyds, where the Government has been steadily selling shares it acquired when the bank had to be rescued in 2008, RBS remains 80% owned by the public. Despite a drastic pruning of its balance sheet and the sale of non-core businesses, its stock price is still substantially below the level at which taxpayers, who funded the £45 billion recapitalisation of the bank, would get their money back.